Snakes on a pole
2 Kings 18:4b “He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it; it was called Nehushtan.”
You may recall that after the Hebrews were freed from slavery in Egypt, they spent 40 years wandering around the desert, forging both their faith and a nation. This wasn’t easy, especially for poor Moses who had to try to lead them. Life was hard and it wasn’t long before even some of God’s greatest miracles were taken for granted and, instead of offering God gratitude, many simply offered a constant stream of complaints. So, in one of the few instances where God does what I might have done under similar circumstances, God sends them poisonous snakes. It’s all there in Numbers 21.
Now they really have something to complain about and they holler for Moses to do something. God tells Moses to make a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Whoever looks at the bronze snake will be healed. It works.
I’ve written about the meaning I find in that text before, but what I have been reflecting on this week is what happens to that bronze snake over time. Apparently, what began as a good gift from God became an idol. By the time of King Hezekiah almost a thousand years later, the thing has become an idol and a snare to the faith of Israel. It even has a name, Nehushtan. As part of a program of reform, Hezekiah takes the thing that God commanded Moses to make and destroys it. The bronze serpent Moses made was nothing without God’s power working in and through it. It was a vehicle for God’s healing, not the source. But over time that got confused and the crude bronze snake was worshipped as a god. It became an idol and the good it once did had become spiritual harm.
What I see is that the way idols are made hasn’t changed much across the millennia. We begin with something that is good—holy, even. Maybe it is even something that God has commanded that we do or have. It might be a thing, like a Bible or a rosary. It might be a family member or special person that God has brought into our lives. It might be a virtue like duty or service. We begin to relate to that gift or responsibility remembering its context, its source, and its purpose. But in time we often come to forget that such things are merely a means to the end of true worship and relationship with our Creator. Idols are not usually bad things in and of themselves. The harm comes not from the thing but from our improper devotion to it.
Churches are full of idols. Often they, too, have names affixed with a brass plaque. Pastors discover the power of such idols when they suggest moving them to the other side of the chancel. Sometimes it is the sacred pew, the King James Version of the Bible, a certain creed or style of music, or even the church itself—either as a building or as an institution. When discussions over the times of worship or Christmas decorations cause people to fail in their love of neighbor, you know you have an idol on your hands. When a congregation can’t put money into missions because the roof has to be fixed first, or can’t open a food pantry because it might make the church look messy, those are signs that idols dwell in your midst.
But of course it’s not only churches. After all, WE are the church. We are the ones who are prone to idolatry in both our personal and public life. I think it’s fair to say that idolatry brought down Wall Street. They don’t call it the “almighty dollar” for nothing. Like the ancient Israelites, we make our offerings to the wrong gods. We demand that our leaders or those we love have no flaws, that they be divine in their perfection. If they accept that role we say they are arrogant. If they defy our request and admit failures, we say they are weak and change gods. We deify national symbols, “family values,” “the good old days,” self-sufficiency, and particular interpretations of Scripture. The list goes on and on.
Lent is around the corner. It’s a good time to start taking an idol inventory in our lives, in order that the season of fire and ashes might break apart our Nehushtans. What causes you to violate the love of neighbor because of your devotion to it? It’s time to let it go.